Discovering Dinosaurs (and Much More)
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 15, 2016
Matt Shipman published an interview this week about my new book House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaur, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. Here’s Shipman’s opening:
I first visited the Peabody Museum of Natural History in the company of hundreds of science writers. The museum was hosting a social event for the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers, which gave me the opportunity to explore its exhibits in the company of people who were exceptionally well-informed and gifted storytellers. It was the best possible introduction.
I visited again a few years later, this time in the company of family and friends. The enthusiasm our kids showed for the exhibits was contagious, as was my friend Jeff’s passion for discussing anything related to geology. I could have spent all day there. The Peabody, in my limited experience, is just that kind of place.
How do you assemble a coherent narrative based on the wildly diverse research done by hundreds of people over more than a century? How do you decide what to focus on? How do you decide what to leave out?
Conniff recently took the time to answer some of my questions, ranging from the characters he left out of the book to the future of natural history museums.
Communication Breakdown: You attended Yale as an undergrad. Did you spend much time at the Peabody while you were a student?
Richard Conniff: I was an English major, and Science Hill was largely foreign territory—except for the Peabody Museum. But I realize now that I was missing the real story, both as an undergraduate and during repeated visits as an adult (often with my kids). I gawped at the dinosaurs, like everybody else. But I had no idea that T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” thought the horse fossils were important enough to spend five days at the museum working through them with paleontologist O.C. Marsh, or that Darwin himself thought
the horse fossils and the toothed birds afforded “the best support to the theory of Evolution” in his lifetime.
Nor, for that matter, did I have any notion that Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” and a character named Lily Bancroft had had sex in a second floor diorama at the museum, with penguins looking on.
CB: What first made you think that you wanted to write about the Peabody?
RC:I was skeptical when folks from Yale University Press and the Peabody first suggested … (Click here to read the full interview on Shipman’s blog.)